Passion for history

For people who love historic mansions as well as the state of Vermont and its history, it doesn’t ge
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For people who love historic mansions as well as the state of Vermont and its history, it doesn’t get any better than the Park-McCullough House in North Bennington.

A Victorian mansion built in 1865 by Trenor L. Park, the Park-McCullough House represents more than 200 years of Vermont history, beginning with future governor Hiland Hall, whose parents moved onto the land in the 1770s, to John G. McCullough II, the man who in 1968 donated the home to the newly formed Park-McCullough House Association.

“We have a wonderful house that was lived in by four generations of a prominent Vermont family, and everything in the house, with a few exceptions that are on loan to us, belonged to the family,” said Patricia Gordon Michael, executive director at the Park-McCullough House. “These were extremely wealthy people, a family with huge connections, and we have all their stuff. It gives us a wonderful window to look at Vermont history.”

Gathering vast collection

The amount of “stuff” at the Park-McCullough House is even more vast than you might expect because Hall Park McCullough, the father of John II, was himself an avid fan of Vermont history.

“Hall Park McCullough was the man who had all three family names, and he was the greatest collector of Vermontiana ever,” said Tyler Resch, a former editor at the Bennington Banner, a librarian at the Bennington Museum and the author of 12 books dealing with Vermont history.

“He had a tremendous passion for history and had the wherewithal to purchase old manuscripts and books, maps and photographs. His collection was so vast that when he died they kept some of it at the house, some went to the University of Vermont, some came to the Bennington Museum, and they sold some at auction. Still, the house has a great collection of historical archives, many that document Vermont’s clothing and textile industries, and it also has great works of art.”

Hall Park McCullough, who lived in the original farmhouse on the property and not the mansion, was the son of John G. McCullough, a Delaware native who was governor of Vermont from 1902 to 1904. John G. moved into the mansion in 1871 when he married Eliza “Lizzie” Park, the daughter of the home’s builder, Trenor L. Park.

Grasping all of the family history requires some diligence, as does truly appreciating all the beauty the house has to offer. There is so much to see in the three-story home (there’s also a basement, an attic and a central tower extending another full story and a half), so much ornate beauty at every turn and in every nook and cranny, that the typical 45- to 60-minute tour doesn’t really do the place justice.

Two primary entrances

The soft yellow, wood-framed house is approximately 89 feet long and 53 feet wide, with a major facade facing east and south. Both have grand entrance doorways, and the building is surrounded on three sides by a veranda. Visitors coming to the house by carriage would stop at the southern entrance, which has a large portico-like structure extending out from the veranda.

“People arriving by carriage would be met at the south entrance by one of the grooms who would take the carriage away,” said Michael. “But it was also common for people to stroll up from the village and enter through the eastern doorway. The house was home to two governors, and with the state capital way up north in Montpelier and Vermont having a part-time legislature, a lot of business was transacted in the house.”

Most of that business was transacted in the gentlemen’s parlor, one of 35 rooms in the house that was designed as a summer home by New York City architect Henry Dudley. Visitors coming in through the eastern doorway are greeted by a spacious center hallway leading to a sweeping double stairway, and those arriving through the southern entrance walk into a smaller hallway with parlors on both sides. Among the interior details are oak and walnut paneling and a parquet floor, while most of the rooms have 14-foot ceilings adorned with bronze chandeliers.

A dining room, where once feasted U.S. President Benjamin Harrison and seven members of his Cabinet in 1891, is complete with furniture taken from the McCulloughs’ home in New York City a few years before. Harrison was in town to help Vermont celebrate its centennial, and slept in the second floor’s northeast bedroom, the one Lizzie and her husband, the original John G. McCullough, usually stayed in when they weren’t at their home in Manhattan.

If the house isn’t enough to quench your thirst for Vermontiana, you can also check out the Park-McCullough carriage barn on the property, as well as a small playhouse on the east lawn, originally home to Abe, the family dog. After Abe’s passing, the family converted the structure into a playhouse complete with several scaled-down details that match the main house.

Building a fortune

The family’s story begins with Hall, who was born in the small nearby farmhouse in 1795. A U.S. congressman before he became governor of Vermont in 1858, Hall and his wife, Dolly, moved into the mansion and lived in a second-floor apartment after it was built by their son-in-law. Park had married their daughter Laura in 1846.

“Hiland Hall was the most prominent member of the family, and he came from very modest means,” said Resch. “They were just farmers. But after he served in the U.S. Congress, he was appointed by President Fillmore to go to California and preside over some very confusing and complex land claims. He was followed to California by his daughter and son-in-law, and that’s where Trenor Park made all his money, not from prospecting gold but working as a lawyer.”

Among Park’s clients was John C. Fremont, an explorer and military man who was the Republican Party’s candidate for president in 1856. Park added to his growing fortune by getting involved in the burgeoning railroad business, and by 1863 had enough money to return to Vermont and build his huge mansion.

“The family used to say that Trenor Park made seven fortunes and lost six of them,” said Resch. “He was a lawyer and a wheeler-dealer, and some of his dealings could be called questionable. There’s never been a real thorough biography of the man because he seemed to cover his tracks. But he came back to Vermont, got elected to the state Legislature, and did a lot for Bennington.”

Park died in 1882, three years before his father-in-law, and it was his daughter Lizzie who actually lived in the house the longest, from 1865 until her death in 1938. Lizzie’s daughter, Bess McCullough Johnson, was the last family member to live in the house and died in 1965.

“Laura is probably my favorite of all the people connected to the house, but Lizzie was really the grand dame,” said Michael. “She lived here the longest, and she wrote a diary and kept all her letters.”

Accumulating history

Evidently, the family’s penchant for collecting things wasn’t limited to Lizzie and Hall Park McDonough.

“They have this extraordinary collection because there were three members of the family, starting with Hiland Hall, who were collectors,” said Resch. “They said Hiland Hall saved every piece of paper he ever touched. His granddaughter Lizzie was a saver, and then her son Hall Park McCullough, you might say, was the greatest saver ever. Their tremendous passion for history gives us a good picture of what Vermont was like in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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